Monday 18 July 2011

Allegheny Uprising (1939)

The French and Indian War was a conflict that was fought between Great Britain and France in North America for control of what were the British colonies across the US and Canada (the name is something of a misnomer since Native Americans fought on both sides), and it ran from 1754 to 1763. In 1765, the Pennsylvania government reopened trade with Native Americans who had taken part in the uprising, much to the outrage of the Pennsylvania colonists who suffered greatly from Indian raids made during the war. A group known as the Black Boys, led by a James Smith, struck against these trades, destroying items intended as gifts and for trade. Based on events from this period, Neil H. Swanson wrote a novel called The First Rebel. This book was eventually turned into the film Allegheny Uprising (I believe it was known as The First Rebel in the UK, but they changed it later).

In 1760s British colonial America, when Jim Smith (John Wayne) discovers that the Native American population are being supplied with rum and guns from white traders, he tries to stop the trades. Trader Ralph Callendar (Brian Donlevy) begins hiding his goods in British military supply trains in an attempt to continue trading. Smith and his men attack the trains, which puts them under fire from British officer, Captain Swanson (George Sanders).

The adaptation of Swanson’s book was done by P.J. Wolfson and, to be honest, it’s not great. It’s a shame because the events of the film are based on some truth, of a British official named George Croghan who smuggled goods in military convoys to be traded with Native Americans in order to recoup losses made during the French and Indian War. Smith and his men stopped these trades, but the British regiment of a nearby fort sided with Croghan and so it set Smith’s men against the British army. Considering this was only about ten years before the American Revolution, this was one of the first signs of disquiet amongst the colonists. This is a great story, clearly rich in drama and history. Wolfson’s screenplay actually does do a decent job of holding this together, however it’s what’s added that lets it down. There’s a romantic subplot between Smith and his friend’s daughter Janie (she wants him; he’s not so interested), which really slows things down, largely because it never goes anywhere. Smith wants to strike against the traders, but Janie keeps wanting stop him because she wants to marry him and such. You’d maybe feel more for her if it weren’t for the fact that Smith seems to be genuinely not too bothered about it, so there’s a mild feeling of delusion about her desires. The film keeps trying to move forward, but she keeps on dragging it down again. There are also some characters that are either kind of superfluous, like Professor, or actually incredibly grating, like MacDougall. The central concern of Smith/Callendar/Swanson is actually handled quite well, though. It also boasts one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines ever: “This is highly irregular… and smelly.”

The direction from William A. Seiter is, for the most part, okay. Seiter was largely a jobbing director, more at home with comedy than anything else, so it certainly doesn’t hold the polish of other more artistically capable directors of the time (like John Ford, whose Stagecoach also came out in 1939 and starred John Wayne), but it’s decent enough job. What lets him down are largely the same things that let the script down, specifically the romantic nonsense. Also, the sense of time is somewhat off. The film is quick (about 80 minutes) and feels pretty brisk, but the film takes place over a period of weeks, if not months, and it ends up feeling more like days. It’s not particularly surprising since it would have been made as a quick westerner, without much thought to it being a lasting westerner.

John Wayne, though still not quite holding himself in the way he became famous for, does show a presence on the screen that would serve him well for many years. Smith is a good guy fighting for what he believes is right, and there’s not much more to him. Wayne can do that. Claire Trevor gives a good spirited performance as Janie, though she is largely quite useless in the film, spending most of it either being told to go away or being locked in a basement. George Sanders and Brian Donlevy are really quite good as Swanson and Callander respectively. Sanders does the severe and snobbish British officer well and Donlevy reminds me somewhat of Danny Huston, and that can only be a good thing. Wilfrid Lawson goes hog-wild with his MacDougall, even though he really shouldn’t have. MacDougall is clearly meant to be the comic relief, but he’s irritating as hell, whooping like a lunatic or babbling incoherently like a drunk. It’s not funny; it’s just aggravating.

One thing I didn’t mention before, but shall now, is the casually racist nature of the film. It’s bad enough that the lone female in the film is a drag and annoyance on the film, but the regular swings at Native Americans is a little unnecessary. Now, I understand that the attitudes expressed by these characters will be a result of the period. In fact, Smith, MacDougall and Professor all know each other because they were Indian Fighters, so they will naturally not be entirely fond of any member of any Native American tribe. Also, the Pennsylvania colonists would not be too fond of them either, since they would have been targets of the raiding parties during the Indian and French War, indeed that’s the initial crux of the whole film. The real Jim Smith’s Black Boys got their name because, as they do in the film, they blacked themselves up and dressed as Indians in order to take on the trade convoys. So yes, these particular characters in this particular time period would be without many kind words for the Native American populace. However, it does strike quite often with uncalled-for hits. They’re barely in the film (they only show up in one scene), and yet they’re constantly being called “savages” and “heathens” and “the only friendly Indians are dead Indians.” Again, I understand the context and I know that the characters would be like this, and it would even have been kind of acceptable amongst the films of that time, but it may be something that strikes a somewhat dissonant chord with modern audiences. It did with me a little bit.

Allegheny Uprising has the seeds of a fairly good work, full of action, history and drama, though it is heavily marred by a go-nowhere, do-nothing romantic subplot, some irritating characters and the casual racism of both the period setting and the time of its release. Also, there are some spirited performances on show and the direction is okay. To be honest, it’s an interesting story, so it would probably make a decent film today.

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